Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman can tell them that a bold move was made in the 1980s: the setting up of such things as agencies, which are at one remove from Government and carry out executive tasks. It is an agency that is carrying out this work.
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): But the Secretary of State designed the scheme herself; she did not have to introduce it. She announced it more than a year ago. Now she is saying that it was not until 14 March that she was aware of how badly wrong it was goingalthough many of us had been writing to her for weeks telling her that exactly this was going to happen. If she thinks that her Minister has been doing a good job she had better get a grip on the issue personally, or the payments will not even be made by the end of June.
May I ask the Secretary of State specifically whether the Government will compensate farmers who have had to incur loans and pay interest because of the late payments? May I remind her how fast the Government are to extract interest from their debtors when they are late in paying their taxes?
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right to observe that Members were saying that the scheme was going badly wrong. Members were saying that payments would not begin on 20 February. They were saying that entitlement notices would not be sent out. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether those who are groaning attend agriculture questions very often.
Let me simply say to the hon. Gentleman that undoubtedly there were real concerns and anxieties, and that those were reflected at ministerial level. That is why the Minister in particular, and my officials, spent so much time working with the RPA. The fact is, however, that payments did begin when they were intended to, and notices did begin to go out when they were intended to. What did not happen was the dramatic ramping up of the speed of payments that was expected to follow. As late as 10 March, the RPA was still insisting to Ministers that more than 51 per cent. of payments would be made by the end of March, and 96 per cent. would be made by the end of June.
The issue of compensation has been raised before. I have already told the House that the payments window closes in June 2005[Hon. Members: "2006."] I am sorry, I meant 2006. Farmers are probably even more aware of that than Members. They know perfectly well that payments are made throughout the window; that is why the question of interest does not arise.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con):
The Secretary of State has attempted to slough off any
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ministerial responsibility, but if she looks at the report of the debate in Committee on the statutory instrument that set up the Rural Payments Agency she will find that Ialong with many others, including some of her hon. Friendsquestioned whether the agency's computer system would be able to handle what was being proposed then, let alone now. Given that that was five years ago, and most of her Ministers are still in place, where does the buck stop?
Margaret Beckett: If that was five years ago, it was long before the negotiations on CAP reform, for a start. Once the decisions had been made about the form and nature of the scheme, Ministers and stakeholder representatives of the industry spent time with the RPA seeking information and assurances on whether it could indeed handle the scheme within the time frame. Those assurances were given, and given categoricallyto the extent that stakeholder representatives and Ministers came back immensely reassured and full of confidence that the RPA could handle the issues.
That was the position at the start. It has to some extent been asserted that the Government were warned from the beginning that the RPA could not handle the scheme. No, we were not: the RPA gave every assurance that it could indeed handle it. As for whether Ministers take responsibility, I am taking responsibility, which is why I removed the chief executive.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I refer to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. The Secretary of State will wish to apologise for the full answer given by the Minister with responsibility for farms, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions on 9 March. He has apologised to me in person, but for the benefit of the House it should be placed on the record that his answer was incorrect and misleading in every particular. He said on 9 March that most of the payments had been made and that Scottish and Welsh farmers had been paid in full, when in fact no payments had been made to English farmers. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to show her awareness of, and willingness to take action on, two related issues? The market in England has been distorted, in that Scottish and Welsh farmers have the cash in hand to pay more for farm animals than English farmers can possibly pay. Secondly, tenant farmers are suffering particular hardship because they have no assets against which to borrow.
Margaret Beckett: It was graceful of the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), to say what he did to the hon. Ladyoutside this Chamber, no doubtbut knowing her as I do, I am sure that she is not implying any wrongdoing on his part.
I am pleased to see that the hon. Lady is not. Obviously Ministers must give correct information to the House, but they can do so only if the information that they have is correct. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary spoke to the House, at that
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stage he had no cause to think that what he was saying was in any way incorrect. There is perhaps a slight misunderstanding about the position in Scotland and Wales. Obviously I do not have responsibility for payments there, but I think that the hon. Lady will find that not all payments have been made in full, although they are doubtless proceeding. I entirely take her point about tenant farmers, and I am mindful that they are likely to be the most vulnerable people. I can assure her that if there were a way to single them out, I would look for it; however, the best thing to do is to try to get everybody's payments out as fast as possible.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I have repeatedly asked the Secretary of State questions about this issue at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, and I am not a bit surprised at the muddle that she finds herself in. Will she undertake to come to the House in a month's time to give us an updateand so that she does not have to eat further helpings of humble pie, will she guarantee that all valid claims will have been paid by then, or, if that it is not possible, that a substantial amount will have been paid on account? Finally, I should have declared my entry in the Register of Members' Interests before asking this question.
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right: Members did repeatedly ask such questions, and as has always been the practice in any Department of which I have been head, when Members ask awkward questions, Ministers do the same. The answers that Ministers gave to Members were those that Ministers got, no matter how hard they probed. The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would give the House an update in a month's time. I do not necessarily rule that out, but what I can say is that I will keep the House informed by whatever means exist as fully and speedily as I can. If I can give the House a quantified update in a month's time I will, and if I can do so earlier, I will.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State put back the deadline for the 2006 applications, or give a firm assurance that no farmer will be penalised for repeating an innocent mistake in his 2005 application, which, of course, he has had no opportunity to correct, not having had the result of that application?
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Farmers in my Kettering constituency are as concerned about this disgraceful situation as any other farmers in the country. By what date are farmers guaranteed to receive these payments?
As I have repeatedly explained to the House, I am not in the business of giving Members guarantees that I cannot substantiate, but I do
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guarantee to keep the House informed. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the payment window expires at the end of June, and it will be the earnest endeavour of everyone in my Department concerned with this issue to make the maximum number of payments as early as we can; we do not want to approach the payment window with payments still to make. But at the moment I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the firmer, clearer or more reliable answer that I know he wants.